Inevitable Optimism

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Since the success of the UN Climate Change Conference in December, there is no denying the vein of optimism spreading through global climate discourse. In a recent series of Ted Talks, the word is featured in the title of the talks of both Christiana Figueres and Al Gore.

Yet I would argue that this optimism is less an effect of the Paris Agreement than it was a cause, and that this turn to optimism was easy to predict for two reasons. The first is that climate change should never have been lumped in as just another “environmental” issue. Addressing climate change is not, and has never been, about saving the planet. It is about saving ourselves. Unlike some “deeper green” forms of environmentalism that encourage respecting the intrinsic values of the natural world, motivation to address climate change requires only the desire to preserve the status quo. The fact that until recently, those who cared more about the interests of humanity or the economy than non-human life continued to be the ones denying climate change and undermining efforts to address it was a frustrating irony that was bound to crumble eventually. The shift was inevitable; the only question was, would it happen in time? That it is now emerging in a frame of optimism rather than cataclysm gives me hope.

The second reason to be unsurprised by this newfound optimism is that pessimism is rarely been the key to sparking revolution. Hope and empowerment are absolutely vital to successful societal change. This is a lesson I learned early on as an environmental activist. Even those who care passionately and deeply about the natural world still need a way for our passions to fuel us rather than drain us. And for the rest of the population who need more convincing, optimism and hope are far more likely to garner support than doom and gloom or anger and indignation. No one likes to be yelled at, told they are wrong, told their very existence is destroying everything and that there is basically no hope. People respond to vision, to celebration, to enthusiasm and joy. One could say optimism is like oxygen.

So yes, I am a great believer in optimism. But wisdom teaches us that it must be tempered, not with the usual cynical “realism”, but with humility. Humility about the limits of human’s capacity to control, or even begin to fathom, what should happen on planetary scale and geological timelines.

cyanobOne of my long-time favourite illustrations of this is the story of cyanobacteria. Roughly 2.5 billion years ago, some highly innovative bacteria literally changed the world. They did it by inventing photosynthesis, and this new ability to harness the abundant energy of the sun allowed them to do very, very well. Up until that point, Earth’s atmosphere was methane-rich and contained only trace amounts of oxygen. Yet our current atmosphere contains roughly 21% of the stuff, and this is directly due to photosynthesis. But this change was not without casualties. Oxygen is highly reactive, and reactive elements are generally harmful to living organisms that are basically of a bunch of chemicals in a finely-tuned balance; when something like oxygen comes in and starts reacting with your chemicals, it’s not good. Although it is difficult to quantify what the diversity of life was before and after the Great Oxygenation Event (microbes do not leave fossils), it is generally accepted to be the first mass extinction event, wiping out most of life on Earth. A few species evolved adaptations to allow them to survive in this newly oxygenated world, cyanobacteria flourished, and the rest is history: specifically, the history of virtually all life as we know it. The descendants of the few organisms who survived without dramatically changing can likely be found living in chemosynthetic ecosystems around deep sea hydrothermal vents.

Now this is not a new story, and as more people catch on to its parallels with our current climate situation, some are asking what the moral might be. Personally, I have always viewed it as a fable of humility. It underscoring the limits of the judgments we as humans are qualified to make about what is supposed to happen on scales and timelines so far beyond our short lives. Because no one hears this story and says “wow, those terrible, evil cyanobacteria, they sure did ruin everything”. Of course they don’t, because humans, along with everything environmentalists are trying to save – forests and whales and rare beetles and even biodiversity itself – sprung from the transgression of these first photosynthesisers.

When I learned about this piece of biological history in my early 20s, I was struggling with my own version of activism-induced burnout. It felt like the weight of the destruction of the world was on my shoulders, and that pretty much everything I did as a member of my society was wrong, marred with death and hypocrisy. Cyanobacteria saved me from this crushing responsibility and shame by teaching me that beyond our own human-scale moral compass; we simply CANNOT know what is SUPPOSED to happen on this planet. Yet this realisation has not led me to apathy. I still care deeply about non-human nature, and I still try to live in a way that decreases the negative impact of my existence (and hopefully, also increases the positive impact). What it has led me to is humility.

In comparing how indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge respond to climate change, a key difference is humility. The scientific pursuit to reduce uncertainty and gain knowledge through amassing data has left us living in a worldview abundant in information and lacking in wisdom. Science can tell us many things about the world, but it cannot make sense of our place in it or tell us how to live. Recognising the importance and power of humility, I proposed the acceptance of the agency of the nonhuman world (aka the limits of human agency) as a path forward. You can read my paper on the topic here.

If optimism is like oxygen, we would do well to ensure our collective diet contains plenty of the antioxidants of humility.

Surface Politics and the Transformation of Waste into Energy

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A belated post about the paper I wrote as a member of the workshop Membranes Surfaces Boundaries. Interstices in the History of Science, Technology and Culture at the Max Plank Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Here is an excerpt:

In understanding waste and bioenergy, surfaces act as sites of local articulation and mediation between useful and problematic, living and nonliving, material and immaterial, matter and energy. ‘Waste’ is only waste when it is demarcated as useless, spent, or undesired. This means that what is waste today can become a valuable resource tomorrow, as increasingly seen in waste-to-energy production systems. Waste and energy are more closely related than one might first suspect. Of course energy is not an object in the classical sense: it has no material surfaces. Yet it too comes into onto-epistemological existence through intra-action, and it is surfaces that are the site of the transformation, release or capture of energy; energy is experienced and understood through its effects on matter. Working on the surfaces of things, energy has material effects, transforms matter and conveys meaning.

You can access the full preprint here.

Whose Dreams are These? The Importance of Governing Beyond Risk

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I want to offer a few of the most salient points and lessons I took from the “winter” school I recently attended in Campinas, Brazil. A key thread throughout the week was the need to govern beyond risk. This means asking questions about the types of research we as a society want to invest our limited resources in. For example, Jane Calvert stressed the importance of upstream engagement and anticipatory governance that involves the publics in all stages, not simply outreach to gain acceptance of predetermined paths. Stephen Hilgartner set the tone well when he asked, how do “unimaginable” technologies become imaginable? To approach this question he offered a comparison of what he termed “vanguard visions” often brought forth by elite collectives who have access to money, power, social capital, knowledge, and what Jasanoff and Kim have described as sociotechnical imaginaries Sociotechnical imaginaries are national, durable, and develop over time, while vanguard visions may be fleeting. As Jane put it, technological visions smuggle in values.

During Susanne Lettow’s thorough overview of bioeconomies, biopolitics and gender, I was reminded of the value of activating a feminist methodology, even when dealing with topics not explicitly gender-related. A feminist methodological approach pays attention not only to what people say but what their practices are, looking for the underlying desires and perceived needs that drive their actions, and paying attention to the contested nature of needs and desires, power relations, and individual and contested modes of resistance. Attention to desires and perceived needs can help to avoid falling into patriarchal modes of judgment of right and wrong, which I think is especially important when dealing with uncertain futures and speculative visions. While we should not ignore the risks, we also need to remain open to the futures these technologies seem to be offering, all the while asking, who benefits from these dreams, and under what conditions? The incorporation of design questions and creative work is also key in this regard, as exemplified by the remarkable art-science collaboration in which Jane Calvert was a participant, Synthetic Aesthetics.

Although we may aim to govern beyond risks, the risks themselves must also be confronted. Highlighting the challenges of regulating emerging technologies, Noela Invernizzi of the Latin American Nanotechnology and Society Network ( provided an illuminating and thought-provoking take on the interface of nanotechnology, labour unions and workers’ rights. As the first reports of dangers of working with these particles in an intimate and loosely controlled manner emerge, (such as this report of a chemist working with nickel nanoparticles), risks remain underreported. It seems clear that specific regulation is needed for nanotech, not just an extension of chemical regulations, as the surface effects (increased reactivity) that emerge at the nano-scale form the basis for both their innovative potential and their potential risks. It was disturbing to hear that although Europe and Australia are deeply involved in regulatory discussion, the USA and Canada have undertaken almost no regulatory activity; even more so, since the above-mentioned case occurred in Canada. Noela discussed how the increasing scientification of regulation works to undermine lay knowledge that workers gain from first hand experience with these new technologies. She highlighted the necessity of attending to the “undone science” that those with the power to fund research may overlook. The concept of “undone science” was first articulated by David Hess, and later elaborated as “systematic nonproduction of knowledge in the institutional matrix of state, industry, and social movements” by Frickel et al (2010). This research on dangers and long-term effects may not be the most glamorous or lucrative, but it is necessary if we are going to make informed decisions as a society on how to proceed, not only with nanotechnology, but with biological engineering, synthetic biology, and other emerging technologies.

The last point I will make moves from theory to academic practice: a reminder of the incredible value of colleagues. Academic work can be overwhelmingly isolating. Although I am finding project development to be a significant improvement over preparing for my comprehensive exam in this regard, I also am finding old habits (in this case, of hiding out not sharing my ideas or work until they meet a self-imposed and arbitrary standard of “good enough”) die hard. The opportunity to share fragmented and unfinished ideas can be one of the most valuable aspects of both summer schools and conferences. But at all of these events, it is inevitably during the informal, social times that the most useful interactions occur. Although this held true, what made this experience exceptional for me was that some of my most generative thinking about my own work happened while participating in a small group discussion about other students projects. This summer school was the most disciplinarily-focussed event I have participated in to date. For the first time, rather than feeling like an outsider among historians or anthropologists or sociologists, I was actually surrounded by people working in STS, which was heartening. Two afternoons had been set aside for smaller groups to discuss student work, and our small group decided to rebel against the empty oppression of the air conditioned buildings and move outside. As we sat in the golden glow of late afternoon sun surrounded by exotically shaped seedpods, we chatted with sociologist of science Phil MacNaghten about GMO regulation, interface-blurring cyborg technologies, and how to formulate meaningful questions about science and society. Although the second day we moved back inside and engaged in a more formal presentation format, I left that first session feeling more invigorated, inspired, and clear-sighted than I had for quite some time. Sometimes, even academics need to dream together.Brazilian Winter Dreaming

next stop: Brazil, biotech and governance

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I am very excited to be attending the São Paulo School of Advanced Sciences on Biotechnology, Biosocialities and the Governance of the Life Sciences this coming week. The 5 day summer school (actually, as it is in Brazil in August, winter school!) invites 50 Brazilian and 50 international students to the State University of Campinas, just outside Sao Paulo. Speakers include Phil MacnaghtenRayna RappStephen HilgartnerJane Calvert, and many more.

This will be an excellent opportunity to extend and deepen my understanding of how the ethical, political, legal and social implications of biotechnologies intersect. I am particularly excited to think through the similarities and differences between governance and bioethics in the life sciences and the environmental and ecological sciences with which I am more familiar. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Getting to the Politics of the Matter

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[my latest blog post for @SituSci…]

What is that quiet tapping noise? No, it’s not my fingers hitting the keys as I type, and it’s not Morse code either, at least not as you would traditionally hear it. It is the sound of knitting needles tapping out a very peculiar pattern of knits and pearls. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

York recently hosted a timely and exciting conference, “Materiality: Objects and Idioms in Historical Studies of Science and Technology”. Materiality is a hot concept these days in science and technology studies and associated fields of history, anthropology and philosophy, and as I was first drawn into STS via the feminist science studies branch of “new materialism”, I was eager to attend. It seems these days that materiality takes the form of two impulses: (1) engaging with the material objects of social scientific and historic studies of science, and (2) the creative production of material outputs within academia. The first impulse, of turning to the sociality and meaning of things themselves, is in many ways a response to the discursive turn of postmodernism in which language for a time seemed to replace the stuff of the world. Of course, science has always engaged with the material, while STS scholars have tended to investigate the social elements of these interactions. Whether it is about time we too engage directly with material objects of study, or whether this misses or weakens the point of STS, remains an open debate. The second impulse holds the allure of producing something you can touch, feel, share and display, rather than books and articles that few outside ones field are likely to ever read. This is a seductive trend, allowing for increased creativity in producing something your friends and family might actually relate to. It also intersects in interesting ways with maker culture.

The two impulses can work together to great effect. In the opening public lecture, Peter Galison showed us how even time has a materiality. He argued that the theories of Einstein and Poincare both gained strength from their practical applications to the problem of synchronizing time. For instance, the use of air pulses pumped through pipes beneath the streets to distribute standardized time pneumatically in Bern inspired Einstein to think about the problem of synchronizing clocks over space, leading him to posit that a clock of pure light would appear different for different observers: that there is “no universally audible ‘tick tock’”. The problem of synchronization exceeded the material or physical elements and moved into the political, as people resisted the imposition of a standard time centred in Greenwich England, crying “Give us back our sun!” and spawning acts of terrorism against the Greenwich Observatory in 1894. Rather than simply writing about these historical happenings, however, Galison wanted to do something different. In describing his resulting artistic collaboration with the artist William Kentridge entitled “The Refusal of Time,” he spoke of how they structured their participation to be more than a science advisor for an art piece or adding an artistic element to a science exhibit. Instead, they aimed to use these art forms to delve into and expand the questions they were encountering.

Touch, See, Critique?

The next morning we heard various examples of the first impulse, the ways in which historians of science are engaging with historical objects. Carla Nappi asked us to consider objects as constellations, and materiality as the capacity for creating relationships exerting a form of agency. In her example of the 18th century translation

Participants interact with historical objects

of European anatomy texts into Manchu, she showed how it was less a matter of translating terms than of translating the human face itself between languages and cultures. Tina Choi enrolled railway guides in countering the dominant view of earlyrailway history as an antagonistic societal force. These material objects shed light on the more positive role that the rail played in developing geographical knowledge and understanding in Victorian society. Katey Anderson used torsion balances to tell a story of geophysics becoming international in the interwar period. Following these finicky, cumbersome and quickly-outdated instruments allows for convincing shifts in scale, for example from scientific research laboratories to transnational capital projects such as petroleum prospecting. In this way torsion balances serve as an embodiment of the ideal of internationalism, though not unproblematically.

Peter Galison provided examples of the second impulse in his keynote address to the conference, which focused on the production of documentary films as a form of academic expression and scholarship. In his new documentary project on nuclear waste, he asks the question: what difference does showing make? For example, what does nuclear waste actually look like? (The amusingly bizarre answer is peanut butter). There are ways in which materiality can bring an immediacy, acting out a phenomenology of actual experience. But this highlights one of the key concerns raised at the conference, particularly with this mode of material academic production: is the critique missing? Are we too likely to take these objects and images as real, without questioning the negative spaces, the exclusions, the displacements, the other stories our objects may be obscuring? Objects, too, are politics by other means. There is a danger in visual outputs (or material or of other sensory modes) that the critique will be missing or missed, but during some of the discussions I began to wonder whether this is any more of a danger than with texts.

The Politics of Printing and Playing

There was plenty of opportunity to explore and engage with the material of the conference, which included ample hands-on sessions as well as scheduled time to view and play with the associated interactive art pieces. There were a few 3D printers on site, and we were invited to try scanning objects and watch the software in action translating visual data into 3D plans. For those of a more historical bent, there was an interactive exhibit of broken scientific experiments as well as a collection of instruments of unknown purpose to investigate. Lego-lovers and armchair engineers were invited to explore the tactile grammar of mechanical construction and recombination, and those intrigued by the intersection of music, movement, ancient instruments and digital harmonics could dance for Cameron Murray and Alasdair McMillan’s “sonic sphere”.

A concern voiced that relates particularly to maker and DIY culture is that we fetishize these materials without asking deeper questions. These plastic objects can feel hollow and as empty as the lattice framework on which these coloured plastic shapes emerging emerge line by minuscule line. There also seems to be a certain deterministic inevitability to it all, as though humans have finally found a way to make the world exactly as we want it. Yet even these plastic figures can surprise, as seen in these two masks printed on different planes.

Things have a language too, speaking to us through relationships sometimes called implicit or tacit knowledge. I was particularly impressed by the way one PhD candidate, Devon Elliot, mobilized this much-hyped technology to produce useful data. By building 3D doll size replica models of historical stage magic tricks, he uncovers small deceits contained in the instructions that would not have been necessarily evident to a strictly text-based historian.

Although in some ways, 3D printing replica masks and playing with Lego may seem indeed to warn of a trivialization of the politics that lie beneath; however, the discussions going on between participants while they built, touched, played, poked, unraveled and moved, told another story. I came away feeling that there is a wealth of potential research projects here, from investigating the political economy of 3D printing (just who is buying these pricey 6 to 7 figure printers? Is it Disney? The military?) to questions of what it might mean to patent form (could an unknowing conference participant’s scanned arm become the next version of HeLa?).

Knitting it Together

My favourite moment of the day was Kriten Haring’s silk scarf-scroll, which she hand-knit in morse code to contain Leibniz’s text on how the Chinese emperor might be persuaded to accept Christianity via his interest in binary numbers. What drew me to this particular intersection of the material and the discursive was the way in which it (literally!) knit together such distant time periods and technological eras, and made tangible something that in the contemporary world can feel both ubiquitous and never quite real. Binary systems underlie so much of our digitally mediated world, that I relished in the sight of this reversal: binary becoming cloth. The piece itself was beautiful, as was the story of how this creative idea was born. It was a beautiful example of a clear and elegant spanning of academia and art that allows people to actively engage with bit-by-bit creation.

Edward Jones Imhotep concluded the day with a fascinating peek into the mind of the infamously eccentric Canadian composer Glenn Gould and how his philosophy of technology can be seen in, and perhaps was influenced by, his love of splicing. This complex editing of pieces of magnetic tape translates material into ideas. Gould is known for putting disjointed ideas together, and though his work has been taken up by thinkers such as Edward Said and Georgio Agamben who dismiss his frequent mentions of razorblades and magnetic tape as though these are quirks, Imhotep argues that these material elements are actually central. Gould modified matter in the pursuit of structure, but it’s also the action that is important, with splicing allowing a return to the judgment and interpretation that he saw lacking in the contemporary concert-hall experience.

What we do and what we think are not separate spheres, but constantly feed and shape each other. Matter matters to thought, and discourse matters to matter. This was the essence of new materialism that first drew me in years ago. I am pleased that these discussions continue.

Garbage, Death, and Forgiveness

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Last October at the 4S Conference in Copenhagen, I was honoured to convene my first conference session, titled “Technologies of Acceptance, Ecologies of Transformation”. The session brought together a panel of talented young scholars who are seeking to unpack human-defined anthropogenic problems, in the hopes that reframing the problem may lead to unexpected solutions. Uniting the papers in the session was a common desire to question assumptions of how things are, how they should be, and how they might yet be.

In my session paper, “‘Death is Not the Opposite of Life’: Ecological and Ethical Reckoning in the Wastelands”, I take death as a point of punctuation and reorganization, arguing for the necessity of negative spaces as well as positive (both physical and metaphysical). Form changes but the thrust of life continues. There is a creative potential in both death and garbage that always exceeds what was lost: from the negative spaces comes new possibility, growth and transformation. Waste-to-energy technologies signify just such a material reimagining of the substance of waste, and through it our relationship with death. I discuss two such technologies, thermal gasification and municipal compost, and how they differently intersect with conceptions of death.

In thermal gasification, the term organic takes on a broader meaning to include anything composed of carbon, even plastics. Fluff is the playful name given by the waste management technicians and researchers to RDF: Refuse Derived Fuel. Bits of plastic mostly, different types, colours and textures are all shredded to a uniform size. Heat fluff hot enough (about 800C) and it loses itself entirely, molecularly reforming into synthetic gas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen in their elemental potentials, from which ethanol and methane can be produced.

Yet fluff is elusive, made of all that garbage that evades order, the end product of garbage-sorting processes. It could not be recycled or composted, but instead persisted in stubborn resilience.  This is matter that resembles industrial dryer lint becomes a category precisely through its failure to be categorized. Becoming fluff is a process of abstraction and homogenization of all those action figures and broken hairbrushes and over-packaging and party cutlery. The creation of fluff shreds the residual confusion of our consumer hysteria and ultimately zaps it into a uniform gas.

In death lies the key to ethically engaging with the wastelands and margins that we increasingly inhabit, the stuff of grey spaces between abstraction and particularity. To define something as wasted is to imply that you know what its purpose was, but following both Isabelle Stengers work on cosmopolitics and Timothy Morton’s dark ecology, I maintain that above all else we do not know. Death to teleology: the only teleology is death and a mysterious deeply rhizomatic void, anything but empty.

Perhaps not even impermanence lasts forever, and even wastelands can come back to life. The future is indeterminate and it remains unclear at the present moment of technoscientific society whether we shall attempt a post/trans-humanist ascension above the wasted world, the carnage beneath our averted eyes, or if we might gaze bravely into the heart of death, looking directly and without fear at our garbage, into the depths and muck of our material past and embodied guilt.

The fluff of gasification and the sludge of municipal compost may be abject in appearance, but they are still organic in the chemical sense, holding energy in reserve in vital double Carbon bonds. Digesters and gasification plants might well be the new stomachs and bowels of our society. We cannot erase the past, but we can transform it. If there are no absolutes truths but only relations, what we are called to is a neo-animistic ethics that explicitly deals with the things which surround us, not only forests and smartphones but rotting food waste and plastic fluff; not only with creation and emergence, but also with the intricate web of death, acceptance and forgiveness. Digging in, getting dirty, becoming garbage, loving garbage so that it is no longer wasted. Perhaps nothing is truly wasted. Fluff and sludge compel us onward.

Rather than post the full paper, here is my prezi. Enjoy!